Chris LeDoux

While many modern day country singers like to think of themselves as cowboys, only Chris LeDoux could lay claim to being the real McCoy. A former champion bareback rider, he pioneered what he calls ‘rodeo rock’n’roll, an exuberant, foot-stomping brand of high-energy rockin’ country music, best captured live. In the early 1970s he was a rodeo cowboy who played guitar and sang his own songs. Along the way he recorded 22 albums on his own label. They were often rushed productions, but LeDoux’s performances and the song quality could not be faulted. Those early albums made a big impact on a young Garth Brooks, not to mention thousands of fans all across the States. LeDoux got his big break due to Brooks, who sang about listening to ‘a worn out tape of Chris LeDoux’ in his 1989 hit Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old), which was enough to create international interest in Wyoming’s singing cowboy. Signed to Capitol/Liberty Records, he soon became more than just a cult hero, and scored chart hits with Whatcha Gonna Do With A Cowboy (backing vocals courtesy of Brooks) and Cadillac Ranch. All of his previous albums were reissued on Liberty and he soon amassed gold albums, with total American album sales in excess of seven million.

Born on October 2, 1948, in Biloxi, Mississippi, his family settled in Austin, Texas in 1960 after his father retired from the Air Force. Chris began his musical odyssey at 14 when he started playing guitar and writing songs. He was also heavily involved in youth rodeo, and his songs reflected his love of the sport. After the family relocated to Wyoming, Chris began to actively pursue a rodeo career. He had twice won the State’s bareback title while still attending high school in Cheyenne. After graduation, he received a rodeo scholarship and won a national title in his third year. He started singing his songs to fellow rodeo contestants, and they reacted favourably to early works such as Bareback Jack, Rodeo Life and Hometown Cowboy. Shortly after getting married in 1972, Chris made his first independent recordings in Sheridan, Wyoming, resulting in the cassette-only releases of RODEO SONGS OLD AND NEW and SONGS OF RODEO AND COUNTRY. He made his first Nashville recordings after his parents moved to Tennessee, and over the next few years recorded 15 albums in Nashville for his own American Cowboy label. In those days, Chris regarded the music as a sideline to being a cowboy. But he took the music seriously enough to sell 14 million dollars worth of cassettes, most of them manufactured by his parents in their own home tape-duplicating room.

By 1976, Chris was becoming known as a singer-songwriter of note and his rodeo career was riding high. He won the Bareback Bronco World Title, and also picked up awards in Wyoming and Nevada for his bronze sculptures of a Bull Rider and Bronc Rider. With a growing cult following, he continued to rodeo until 1984, when accumulated injuries made him hang up his spurs. He had invested in a 500-acre ranch in Wyoming, and once he had it up and running, he began working more seriously on his music career. He was now booking himself and his Saddle Boogie Band, and with his music gaining a Garth Brooks’ endorsement, his recording career bolted out of the chute. Signed to Capitol/Liberty Records in 1991, his first major label album, WESTERN UNDERGROUND, sold in excess of 100,000 and included a minor country hit in This Cowboy’s Hat. Impressed by these sales, Capitol took over all of the singer’s entire 22 independent cassettes and re-released them on CD. The title song of his 1992 album, Whatcha Gonna Do With A Cowboy, featuring Brooks on backing vocals, roared onto the country top ten, resulting in the album going gold. He co-starred with Suzy Bogguss in a TNN special Ropin’ And Rockin’ in 1993, and continued to score country hits with Under This Old Hat, For Your Love and Tougher Than the Rest.

An 18-year-overnight success, Chris LeDoux described his music as: ‘A combination of western soul, sagebrush blues, cowboy folk and rodeo rock’n’roll.’ His tales of cowboys, rodeo riders, feisty cowgirls and four-legged legends perfectly captured a piece of modern day Americana. His core fan base was 250,000 and his back catalogue of 30 albums still sell consistently. A factor that helped LeDoux sell without a great deal of radio support was the reputation of his live shows. Noted for the pyrotechnics and mechanical bull riding, his rockin’ country-western mix was a big influence on Garth Brooks’ stadium shows of the early 1990s. His albums, especially 1996’s STAMPEDE and 1999’s ONE ROAD MAN, which included a Bon Jovi duet on Bang A Drum, come close to capturing the electrifying excitement of Chris LeDoux and his music in a studio.

Some people think of country music as a genre of heartache. Just listening to mainstream country would support this viewpoint––after all, songs about relationships ending, tears falling, and the happening of practically any other pessimistic event imaginable do seem to be at the top of the charts. Pick up a Chris LeDoux tape, however, and you’ll begin to understand a different side of country music. Rocking tunes about the frenzies and fun of rodeo life, gentle ballads of cowboy love, and silly jingles about everything in between make up the solid, imagery-filled albums––all thirty-seven of them––that fans have grown to love. And the best part? He lived everything he ever sang about.

“There was a lack of rodeo songs,” he once said. “There were songs about truck drivers, love, barrooms, and every other doggone thing, so I figured that, with all the rodeo fans and cowboys out there, I’d give them some rodeo songs. And it worked.”

COWBOY, a western album with a contemporary edge that sounded just right for today, was produced by Mac MacAnally in Muscle Shoals and featured new recordings of rare LeDoux songs from the beginning of his career. Shortly after completing the album in the summer of 2000, LeDoux was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare and debilitating liver ailment. When he discovered he needed a new liver, Garth Brooks offered part of his own, but was found to be an unsuitable donor. He underwent a liver transplant in October 2000, and though false rumours of his death surfaced shortly thereafter, his recovery had apparently been complete and he was back out on the road working just as energetically as previously. However, in late 2004 he began undergoing radiation treatment for cancer of the bile ducts, and he passed away on March 9, 2005.

Chris LeDoux will always be considered one of the most influential artists of country music. Superstars like Garth Brooks and Toby Keith, who performed a duet with LeDoux called Copenhagen in the early 1990s, cite him as a huge influence on their music, and artists like Charlie Daniels, Johnny Gimble, and Janie Fricke have appeared on his records. He is also considered a monumental figure in the world of rodeo. Dave Freudenthal, governor of LeDoux’s home state of Wyoming, declared July 30, 2005 as Chris LeDoux Day. The day is the last Saturday during Cheyenne Frontier Days, a well-known rodeo event. ‘Chris LeDoux has meant a lot to Wyoming, from his earliest days of riding bareback to his later days of making music,’ Freudenthal said at the time. ‘Cheyenne Frontier Days, when fans of both will gather, seems like an appropriate time to honour his memory.’

If Chris LeDoux wanted to be remembered for only one thing, it wouldn’t be for his success in country music or rodeo. It would instead be for his strong belief that family always comes first. He and Peggy, his wife of more than 30 years, had five children together, and saying that LeDoux was a devoted and loving father and husband would be a tremendous understatement. In a song called One Less Tornado on his final album, HORSEPOWER, he sang: ‘Now there’s one less tornado in Texas/And a saddle that’s empty tonight/There’s one hell of a cowboy in Heaven/At the big rodeo in the sky.’ The epitome of a true, hard-working cowboy, Chris LeDoux will forever be missed.

Recommended Listening

Songs Of Rodeo Life (1971, reissued on Liberty 1991)
Songs Of Rodeo & Country (1975, reissued on Liberty 1991)
Western Tunesmith (1980, reissued on Liberty 1991)
Western Underground (Liberty 1991)
Whatcha Gonna Do With A Cowboy (Liberty 1992)
Under This Old Hat (Liberty 1994)
Stampede (Capitol 1996)
Greatest Hits (Capitol 1999)
Cowboy (Capitol Nashville 2001)
After The Storm (Capitol Nashville 2002)
Horsepower (Capitol Nashville 2003)
The Ultimate Collection (Capitol-Nashville 2006)
Classic Chris LeDoux (EMI 2008)